Discovering New Media
UB's wired wired world
"Hey, how about those Bulls?"
Those five words are music to Bob Arkeilpane's ears. No, he's not a die-hard Chicago fan. He's UB's new athletics director. And he's working overtime for the day when sports fans start their Monday morning water cooler chats with a salute to the UB Bulls.
That may seem like a tall order. But for Arkeilpane, 40, it's all part of a plan he's uniquely qualified to execute. No stranger to big-time athletics success, he radiates confidence and enthusiasm for this growing part of UB's reputation.
"We're going to do it, do it fast, and do it right," says the man in charge of taking UB Athletics to the top. "Sure, we'll have growing pains. We won't win overnight. But we're not going to take shortcuts. If people are patient and continue to support the program through attendance and gifts, they'll see results."
According to Arkeilpane, those results can include far more than success on the playing field. The benefits of a nationally recognized athletics program run the gamut from more campus activities to increased applications for admission, higher revenues for the university, and a powerful economic impact on Western New York.
This fall, UB takes a giant leap toward those goals when its football team moves into the NCAA's Division I-A, the highest level of competition. Only 114 colleges and universities in the country compete at this elite level, making UB a member of a very exclusive-and competitive-club.
As part of the move, UB has joined the Mid-American Conference (MAC), which includes perennial football powerhouses Miami University of Ohio, Marshall University and Ohio University. This fall's schedule includes two conference teams with Heisman Trophy candidates, plus nonconference opponents like Virginia, picked by some to finish in the nation's top 10.
For Arkeilpane, the move to Division I and the MAC is satisfying on many levels. (UB's other varsity sports started playing in the MAC in 1998.) From a standout high school football career at Sweet Home High School, near UB's North Campus, he earned an athletic scholarship to Syracuse, where he was a starting defensive back. There he played with future NFL stars Art Monk, Joe Morris and Gary Anderson-and against such big-name players as Warren Moon, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.
"I played with and against some very talented athletes," he remembers. "I had an opportunity to go out of state, but Syracuse was two hours from home, so my parents could come see me play. It's unfortunate for me that UB wasn't competing in Division I then, because I would have looked long and hard at staying here."
That's one of the many benefits Arkeilpane sees from UB's move up. "Now we're an alternative for any local young man or woman with the skills to compete at this level," he says. "We offer an opportunity for them to stay home, compete in their home town and get a high-quality education."
Arkeilpane also has extensive experience in the MAC. He earned a master's degree from Ohio University and served as an assistant athletics director at Miami before coming to UB. "I know the players, the institutions, the administrators and the level of competition in the MAC," he says, adding that UB's strong academic tradition makes the university uniquely suited to the MAC, a conference noted for combining athletic achievement with academic excellence.
"UB is a terrific academic institution," Arkeilpane states. "That's one of our best recruiting tools. Student athletes will come here because of the quality of our academics." Already, the university's recruiting efforts have expanded outside New York, drawing student athletes in a variety of sports from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and even California and Canada.
Recruiting sometimes raises tricky issues. Arkeilpane cautions alumni and friends of UB not to approach any promising high school athletes directly; instead, they should contact the UB Athletics Department. "If you're aware of a potential student athlete in your area, please contact us," he says. "Under no circumstances should you approach the athlete yourself." He adds, "We have an outstanding [NCAA] compliance director, Bill Maher. Any time you have a question about recruiting, please contact Bill."
Of course, there's more to a successful athletics program than a winning football team. Arkeilpane is quick to point out the importance of other men's and women's teams in Division I play-and some surprising early successes against top competitors.
"We came out of the gate and did very, very well in wrestling," he says. "Our women's basketball program also had an exceptional season. They finished in the top eight and competed very well in the playoffs. And our men's soccer team took
Akron, the eventual conference champion, to double overtime in the playoffs."
Arkeilpane singled out the rise of women's athletic teams to prominence as one of the most important changes in intercollegiate athletics for UB. "It's a wonderful time to be a female student athlete. Thanks to Title IX legislation and NCAA gender equity requirements, there are many more opportunities for women student athletes today than ever before."
Along with football and men's and women's basketball, UB now fields Division I teams in men's and women's soccer, women's volleyball, men's and women's swimming, wrestling, track and field, cross-country, men's and women's tennis and women's crew. Softball and baseball teams will be added this year.
"For better or worse, the public often judges your success by how well the football and men's and women's basketball teams do," Arkeilpane acknowledges. "But we want all our teams to be successful. Every team can't win all the time, but we want them all to be competitive."
As for the benefits big-time athletics can bring to the university and to the community, Arkeilpane presents an impressive array of facts: "For Division I-A competition, we're required to have a 30,000-seat football stadium. Imagine having 13,000 to 15,000 visitors on campus for games four or five times every fall. Now imagine the tremendous economic impact on the local community from hotel rooms, dining and other purchases."
He also cites figures showing the effect of national exposure through athletics on applications for admissions-also known as the Flutie Factor. "In 1985, Boston College won the Cotton Bowl and quarterback Doug Flutie won the Heisman. Applications jumped from 12,414 in 1983 to 16,163 that year. Similarly, when Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl in 1996, applications skyrocketed from 12,918 in 1995 to 16,685 in 1997."
Increased applications bring a corresponding rise in the quality of students admitted. At Northwestern, average SAT scores rose 19 points in two years, while class rank of incoming freshmen jumped a full percentage point.
Schools also typically realize increased earnings-not just for the athletics programs, but for their general operating funds as well, with everything from increased sales of licensed apparel to improved fund-raising success. Add higher concession revenues, more stadium advertising, radio and television deals, and increased ticket sales, and it's clear that the rising tide of a successful sports program can lift boats throughout the university and the surrounding area.
For Arkeilpane, some of the intangible benefits of athletic success are just as important. "A successful athletics program gives the university a rallying point, a shared experience that creates a sense of belonging," he says. "That's so important for a large university like UB."
That shared experience is equally important to UB alumni around the country. That's why the "water cooler factor" figures prominently in everything Arkeilpane does. "Everywhere I go, I run into so many alumni who are hungry for athletic success," he relates. "Call it bragging rights, call it what you will, it's important to them to have a great athletics program they can point to and say, 'That's my team.'"
Blair Boone, Ph.D. '84, is a Buffalo-based freelance writer.